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A look back at the Agricultural Fairs in the Town of Cairo

by Robert Uzzilia
Cairo Town Historian

Originally published in Daily Mail August 24, 2003

See you at the fair! This proclamation was made by area folks for nearly a century, symbolic of the widespread appeal of a grand summertime event held in Cairo. 

In 1819 the newly-formed Greene County Agricultural Society organized a simple Cattle Show and Fair to showcase the livestock of area farms by awarding premiums. On Tuesday, Nov. 2 the Society members brought their animals to a field in Cairo belonging to Daniel Sayre. In addition, “specimens of domestic manufacture, fruits and vegetables were placed in an occupied store.” After the judging, the assembly met at Osborn’s Tavern where “a good farmer’s dinner” was enjoyed. The members paid 31 cents each for their meal. Then the results of the judging were announced and premiums awarded. The premiums doled out ranged from two to ten dollars each (a sizeable sum in those days). The top prizes were dominated by Durham farmers. Ezra Post won “1st  best” two acres of corn with 165 bushels, best Bull Three Years old went to Charles Johnson and best fat Oxen to John Bagley. Other categories included best lot of cheese and best Boar. A balanced representation of domestic farm life included best piece of carpeting, best hearth rug and best lot of flannel. 

After several more small fairs were held, the Society waned for a number of years, perhaps influenced by the Cholera epidemics of the 1830’s. It was re-organized in 1841, drafting a new constitution and increasing the number of officers. Anthony Van Bergen was elected President. No fair was held that year but was reestablished the following year in Cairo and was “largely attended.” Addresses were given at both the Episcopal and Baptist Churches and a public dinner enjoyed. Also, a new premium category of “best farm” was added, providing new incentive for Greene County farmers.

The 1852 fair was estimated to have an attendance of 1200 persons, a trend that continued through the ensuing decades. Membership in the Agricultural Society grew to 140, thus increasing revenues and hence premiums awarded. The resulting friendly competition would benefit county residents with greater crop yields, higher quality livestock and other spin-off advantages.

By 1870 the Society opted to lease a large parcel of land owned by Seymour Adams, at the West end of the village of Cairo between the Durham and Windham roads. It is probable that this long-term arrangement reflected the planned expansion of the fair, required by increased attention to the entertainment aspect. It is known that horse racing and balloon ascensions were enjoyed at early fairs. Thus a larger area could accommodate larger crowds and create increased revenue from admissions. A large grandstand and a judges stand were constructed along with an excellent surface for horse racing. It is said the track was one of the fastest in the state at that time because of the firm but flexible soil conditions. The fair was becoming a major event in Greene County. Cairo’s centralized location provided a short travel route from all points. Its impact would be far-reaching.

By 1880 James LeRoy Jacobs purchased a fledgling bottling business from Francis & Ambrose Walters, proprietors of a prominent Main Street hotel. He expanded it to a considerable enterprise, offering mineral water soda and beer. The annual fair being held nearby would bolster his summer revenues as he could sell directly to the fair vendors, the fair goers and even the many area boarding houses and hotels. Other local merchants benefiting from the increased traffic included blacksmiths, liveries, dry goods dealers and even purchased fine hats to compliment fancy outfits made for the occasion.

Probably the most detailed first-hand account of a visit to the fair was penned by R. Lionel DeLisser in 1893, when he traveled the Catskills with his horse Cherry in preparation for a series of “Picturesque” titled books, complimented by many small but quality photographs.

The event was, at that time, held on Sept. 5th through 7th. DeLisser related “cattle-show” as being a date everybody is supposed to know, a reference point on the calendar, ie “I sold you those taters a fortnight afore cattle-show” or “I did not see John about that yoke of Oxen until two months after cattle-show”. Picnic baskets were packed, buggies cleaned and prepared. Trails of horsedrawn conveyances could be seen leading to Cairo on most major thoroughfares. Old friends and relatives would relish the time together spent at the fair, exchanging news, enjoying good food and good company.

DeLisser described the early morning of the first day as time for the arrangement of animals and booths as well as the time when young boys would jump the fences to get in before the “watchers” were stationed at the gates, thus avoiding the 25 cents admission fee.

Some of the pageantry associated with the fair included the delivering of speeches by Agricultural Society officers and the appearance of the Marshal on his dazzling white horse in full regalia. It was his job to clear the track for the harness races and generally keep order. The sounds contributing to the clamor of the event emanated from the many tents and booths of the midway. Like spiders attempting to lure an unsuspecting fly, they chant their lines; “Four rings for five cents. Try your luck and ring the gold-headed cane in the center if you can.” The music of the hurdy-gurdy adds to the festive air.

After a few hours of examining exhibits and enjoying the games, many escape to the outskirts of the spacious grounds. They seek out a patch of grass and enjoy a basket lunch and the company of family or friends, passing the time till all would disperse and begin a new season of fall harvest and eventual struggle through winter, only to look forward to next year’s event.

The County Fair would continue as an August staple for many years to come. It took the Great Depression of the 1930’s to weaken the venue. A valiant effort to secure funds and save the event was mustered by the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, but by 1936 the Fair was no more. Horse racing was later reintroduced at the grounds but the added flavor of exhibits and family camaraderie was absent.

Sometime in the late 1970’s or early 80’s the grandstand and associated buildings were taken down, part of a misguided effort to bring a Summer festival and stock car racing to the area.

But regardless, when Summer comes in this part of the county, we still cling to the visions of youthful exuberance, brought out by the anticipation of “cattle-show”. See you at the fair!

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